In Jodhpur, I didn’t manage to find a couchsurfing host at short notice, so I booked myself into the Govind Hotel. It’s just a couple of hundred metres from the railway station, and the manager offered a walking pick up straight off the train. However, they’ve had problems in the past with the station authorities not believing they’re picking up guests with prior reservations, and threatening to prosecute them for touting for business on the platform. So the manager described the procedure: I tell him my carriage number and he will wait outside it, wearing a blue t-shirt. When I get off, I should look for him but not talk to him. When he sees me, he’ll briefly show me a piece of paper with my name on it. Then he’ll walk out of the station, and I should follow behind him at a distance until we’re clear.
I could have found the hotel myself, but once I’d heard about the John le Carré style procedure of the walking pick up, I definitely had to go for it. The contact went precisely as planned, and we were undetected by the railway authorities as we exchanged a subtle nod on the platform and escaped through their net to the street outside and the hotel.
I was only in Jodhpur for one day, so I had to make the most of it. I signed up for a tour of the Bishnoi villages, organised by the hotel, to cover the morning, and then planned to walk into the old city and see Meherangarh Fort in the afternoon.
At first I was the only person signed up for the Bishnoi tour, which was going to cost me Rs1500, of which I paid a Rs1000 deposit. But over dinner on the rooftop cafe, I managed to talk two American guests, Peter and Corinna, into joining me. By recruiting them to the tour, the price was reduced to Rs700 per head. Peter and Corinna paid up, and the hotel manager gave me my Rs300 refund – which made it look like I was the sort of commission scam tout that I’ve grown to hate with a passion in India.
We drove about 30 minutes out of Jodhpur to the area of the Bishnoi villages. This is something which is fascinating about India. In the UK, if you travel 30 minutes out of a city to visit the local villages, you’ll be meeting people who are just like the ones in the city, except they’ve chosen to live in villages. In India, a modern urban dweller could drive 30 minutes out of town and be amongst tribal people like the Bishnoi, living in houses made of cow dung and following obscure local religious practices. Well, maybe you could do that in Norfolk too.
Our first stop was Khejarli village, and a memorial to the 363 Bishnois who sacrificed their lives to protect their sacred khejri trees from the Maharaja’s lumberjacks. The memorial is in a park full of khejri and other trees, with a small temple, and a new larger temple under construction behind it. The piles of sand and cement lying around spoiled the ambience somewhat.
We went from there to the house of a Bishnoi family, which as I mentioned before, is made of cow dung – in particular the floor. It is dried and painted over, at least. There, we were given traditional Bishnoi opium tea. Considering Hate List item 11.10, I should say “opium infusion”. We were only given a little of what I presume was a fairly weak mixture. I guess the tour organisers want us to be happy enough to tip well, but not to knock us out completely for the rest of the sights. A tiny amount of opium resin was ground in water with a mortar and pestle, then strained through a cotton funnel hanging from a stand. After slurping a couple of thimblefuls from my hand, and waiting a few minutes, I thought I could feel a slight effect, but it was subtle enough that I could have been imagining it. Meanwhile I also had a go at grinding millet with a hand-powered millstone.
We stopped by a lake where our guide showed us Siberian crane and blackbuck. By this point, the opium effect was akin to having had 1-2 beers. I felt like my pool game had probably improved. Unfortunately there was no chance to test the theory, as we were off to a craft workshop to see a demonstration of pottery on a very primitive potter’s wheel, just a large stone disc, spun by hand and then left to run by inertia. We looked at finished pottery and block-printed fabric products, and Peter and Corinna bought some of the latter. I had no interest in stocking up on clay figurines and bed sheets at this particular time.
Finally, we went to another Bishnoi home for lunch, a weaving demonstration and another shopping opportunity, this time for carpets. The lunch was roti (flat bread) made from a mixture of millet and wheat flour, curd curry and cooked khejri leaves. After this we headed back to Jodhpur. I felt quite sleepy and found it difficult to stay awake in the car: you know how it is, being in the passenger seat, during that post-lunch lull, when the weather’s warm. And you’ve had some opium.
THE BLUE CITY
By the time we got back to Jodhpur, the opium had worn off and I immediately signed up to do the Bishnoi tour again the next day. (Joking, mum.) Coffee at the hotel perked us up, and we walked into the old city towards Meherangarh Fort. As I wrote in the last blog post about the Art Nouveau havelis of Bikaner’s old city, the medieval quarter of Jodhpur is exactly that. It still has the city’s densest concentration of population, industry and commerce, rather than the museumpiece alleys and squares of European old cities. Sardar Bazaar around the clock tower, especially, would be a great place for some street cafes, if you could get rid of all the people and clean it up. Not that I’m recommending genocide. Maybe just a forced relocation.
Corinna wasn’t interested in seeing the fort, so cut away from Peter and me and went off to explore the streets and shops. Later, at the hotel, she said she’d had a great time and had returned with a huge bag of turmeric, bought for the bargain price of Rs35 (about 35p). I wondered if perhaps my distaste for these still-functioning “old cities” wouldn’t be so great if I were interested in shopping as a tourist activity. I don’t buy anything from European old city boutiques either, I just like them because they’re discreet and keep the place nice and tidy. Maybe I’d enjoy Old Delhi / Shahjahanabad, the Pink City of Jaipur, and this place, a bit more if I wanted to do what Corinna did, go and hunt out the spice stalls and stock up on turmeric at rock bottom prices. But why would I? It’s trivially easy to buy turmeric at home, and any saving on price is massively outweighed by the hassle of carrying a big bag of it with me for the rest of the trip, and inevitably having it explode over all of my stuff.
Guessing a route through the alleys up towards the fort, Peter and I were accosted by a boy of no more than 14, smoking a cigarette.
- Boy: Hello! Want smoke?
- Peter: No thank you.
- Boy: Can I have one question?
- [I was too slow to say yes, and ask him one.]
- Peter: OK, just one.
- Boy: Your skin looks very soft. Do you use moisturiser cream?
- Peter: No.
- Boy: How do you make it so clean?
- Me: He washes. Thus ends the lesson.
We continued striding up the hill, too quickly for Beauty Tips Boy to bother following us.
By far the best place to enjoy the Blue City is from the fort, where the street level is obscured, and you see only the blue-painted upper storeys of the houses jostling together against the cliff walls. Except for the colour, it’s very reminiscent of Athens, with the Acropolis towering over the ancient city.
After a while of touring Rajasthan, you can become a bit fort-blind. They all start to merge into one. Which fort was it where we saw all the cannons? Where was the throne room fabulously decorated with mirrored tiles? Answer: all of them. From the outside, Meherangarh in Jodhpur is the most magnificent I’ve seen so far: vast, solid walls and towers rising from the already vertiginous rock. Inside, it’s the same old stuff: intricately carved screens, plush throne rooms, rich textiles, armouries of decorated weapons. I reckon I could project manage my own Maharaja’s fort by now: I know all the stuff that’s supposed to be in it. Meherangarh did contain a few new things though: galleries of howdahs, palanquins and cradles, a throne room ceiling decorated with Christmas baubles, and of course its incredible views over the Blue City.
On the way back down through Jodhpur’s narrow, busy alleys, I almost got run over by a motorbike. Not in the Western sense of having a motorbike whizz past, missing you by inches. That happens a hundred times a day. No, I mean in the Indian sense, where you both suddenly have to stop because the motorbike’s front wheel is now between your legs.
My two American companions for the day, Peter and Corinna, are a teacher and a poet respectively. I asked Corinna if she had written any poetry about India. She said that, apart from being cliched, and not the sort of topic she covers anyway, she wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about India from the perspective of a privileged white Western visitor. We have no right to make judgments on another culture. Ah, I thought, the relativist position. I understand the argument. I don’t agree with it. I’m extremely comfortable going around India, judging the shit out of it. My values are my values. They may be changed by contact with another culture, but ultimately I believe that I’m right, and if you differ from it, you’re wrong. Cultural relativism is the attitude which leads otherwise right-thinking people to sign a petition in favour of the mutilation of girls’ genitals, even when it happens in the UK, because they don’t want to interfere. Its antithesis, cultural imperialism, inspired the British Raj to put an end to suttee, the ritual burning alive of a dead man’s widows on his funeral pyre. Monuments to the practice can be seen at Meherangarh Fort, where the Maharaja’s widows would follow his funeral procession out to the burning ground, leaving their handprints on the wall of the entrance gate as they passed under it for the last time.
Each of these 31 hands represented a human life, needlessly and cruelly extinguished. Visitors place coins and garlands to “honour” the practice, which still happens occasionally up to the present day.